Wikipedia defines leadership as “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” When we think of different leadership styles more often than not we are in fact thinking of the work of Kurt Lewin. It was Kurt Lewin and his colleagues that classified leadership styles according to the culture of autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire. This work sometimes goes by the name of Lewin Theory.
Let’s examine the different types of leadership cultures defined by Lewin and then consider how we might apply this to leading our teams.
With this style of leadership all decision making resides with the leader. Autocratic leaders are often associated with dictatorships.
Autocratic leadership might seem antiquated but it still has its uses. It can be very effective, for example, on short duration projects which are highly complex, or on projects which have a hard deadline by which they must be completed, or on projects where employees need a low level of skill and simply need to be driven by the leader to produce.
With this leadership style decision making happens by the group combined, and so responsibility for decision making is shared.
Democratic Leadership is particularly useful in companies which practice continuous process improvement as everyone is encouraged to feed into the process of continuous improvement. It is also useful in highly competitive and complex industries where it allows the best ideas to rise to the top, and facilitates the rising and establishment of future leaders within the organization.
With this leadership style the leader does not lead directly, but allows the group to entirely direct itself.
Use of a Laissez-faire leadership style is usually only appropriate for a team of highly effective professionals with a reputation and history of delivering excellent work.
If you imagine a straight line running from autocratic leadership at one end of the line, to laissez-faire leadership at the other, with democratic leadership in the middle (let’s call this line the leadership line), it can be good to think about what point on the line you naturally gravitate towards. It should also be obvious to you by now that different types of projects, organizations, and situations call for different styles of leadership, for example, under a tight, high pressure deadline, autocratic leadership is often the most effective.
In fact, different situations may cause us to lead differently in different situations. Lewin expressed this via an equation, known as Lewin’s equation: B = f(P, E). This equation is saying that Behaviour is a function of both the Person and their Environment. As I see it the key take away from all this is that in order to be the best leader you can, you may find it beneficial to change you leadership style depending upon the situation you find yourself in. This will vary in difficulty for you depending on how far away the style you’re trying to adopt is from the style you naturally gravitate towards on the leadership line.
Finally, note that there are other types of leadership styles in addition to those described above, such as Charismatic Leadership and Servant Leadership, but they weren’t identified by Lewin so I’ll cover those in a later article.
The 5 Levels of Leadership: Book Summary
Three Levels of Leadership Model
Blake Mouton Managerial Grid
Bureaucratic Theory (Max Weber)
Path-Goal Theory of Leadership
Situational Leadership Model
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership
Tannenbaum-Schmidt Leadership Continuum